It is legal for the American government to order the killing of an American citizen if a "high-level" official decides that the person is a senior member of al-Qaeda or an associated group who poses "an imminent threat of violent attack" against the US, according to a Justice Department memo obtained by NBC News. But the 16-page document, which details the legal reasoning behind the use of drone strikes against Americans, uses a very broad definition of "imminent." A key part:
- "The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future."
The document is not the same one used to justify the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, but the legal reasoning appears very similar, reports the New York Times. An ACLU director describes the memo as "chilling." At its heart, "it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen," he says. "It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated." A bipartisan group of 11 senators wrote to President Obama yesterday urging him to release documents explaining his "authority to deliberately kill American citizens" in drone strikes or other counter-terror operations, Politico reports, and the issue is expected to play a key role in the confirmation hearing of counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan as CIA director. (Read more Anwar al-Awlaki stories.)